Biting the Invisible Hand: The Teachers' Fight Against Corporate Education Reform

When Adam Smith used the term “invisible hand” in The Wealth of Nations, he loosely referenced the idea that an individual’s actions toward their own gain would have benefits for the whole of a society. This has become part of the battle-cry for Neoliberal education reformists: if the invisible hand is leading all of us to our own beneficial gain, and by default to larger social gains, then a competitive market is best left untouched by a regulatory government.

There are a lot of problems with the idea of the “invisible hand”, namely that it’s steeped in Calvinist work ethic and the total myth of a meritocratic society, particularly an institutionally racist one like ours. I’m sure some readers are smugly touting Dave Ramsey-esque battlecries like “just live within your means” and “debt-rollover” or whatever. 

But let’s be real, for a second. I don’t know for sure, but I’m just thinking that if I have to live within my means making $7.25 an hour, at 40 hours a week that’s like a high estimate of $1,160 a month. What I can afford (even with government subsidies) predicts where I’m going to live. It predicts where I am going to buy food. It predicts whether I’ll be able to afford transportation. It assures I won’t be able to afford childcare. Like I said, I don’t know, but I’m just thinking that invisible hand is probably not, at all, leading me to my own individual gains. To the contrary, I’m pretty sure it’s just using me so someone else can have some gains.

And as long as wages are low, and transportation, childcare, and housing remain unaffordable, nobody in this scenario is pumping enough money back into our collective economy to even come close to equilibrium, or even stability.

Where is the Invisible Hand Leading Public Schools?

There are a lot of white, wealthy dudes leading the charge of Neoliberal market reform in public schools that serve primarily students of color. What this means is that there are some big-money players who see a big-money market in public education. If that on its face doesn’t outrage you, just keep reading.

Allow me to side-step for a second while I explain why I’m writing about this: I don’t have any experience with economics or business. I taught for 9 years, was a No Child Left Behind-era teacher, and cut my teeth during performance-based-experiments in teacher-pay and standardized measures of accountability. I ended my time in the classroom in Indianapolis Public Schools, which right now serves as the auctioning block of public education.

In a neoliberal effort to “revitalize urban schooling”, market reformers have descended on Indianapolis Public Schools just in time for board elections. There’s a broker (The Mind Trust), and “non-profit” conduits including a group called “Stand for Children”. They don’t necessarily have a difficult sell. There’s an easily co-opted rhetoric teachers have been saying for a long time: “it’s for the kids”, “we need systems that work”, “schools need autonomy”, we need “less bureaucracy.” All good ideas, right? Except there’s one thing I can’t quite put my finger on: if these are such great ideas, then why isn’t the Mind Trust in Carmel (Indy’s affluent neighbor to the north)? 

I tricked you. I actually can put my finger on it. Underpinning every argument there is for reforming public schools is an assumption that the communities of inner-Indianapolis need help. Poor, underserved, historically marginalized: what any neoliberal strategist will have us all believing is that what Indianapolis needs is a larger tax base (read: gentrification) and a competitive school market. 

Gentrification and competitive school markets benefit some, and oust others (as is the nature of competition). But when we are talking about public education, having a “winners” and “losers” system isn’t going to work. Public education is supposed to 1) free, 2) fair, and 3) accessible. There is a litany of devices that make it not so, but when you start by making public schools a marketplace, fixing all the other devices doesn’t matter as much.

By the way, a couple other things that might increase a tax base and more equitably fund public schools that don’t involve the educational failure of thousands of kids: paying a fair, livable wage, reducing structural barriers so that current business-owners and residents in Indianapolis can thrive, and equitably funding schools statewide.

Ta-da. What an idea. 

Teachers, This Includes You, Too 

In states like Indiana, the teachers’ union rights have been all but decimated. Teachers- the core technology of education- are being distilled to mere deliverers of canned curricula. The de-professionalization of teaching is the trademark of applying a Tayloristic model of production to education, and affects huge numbers of women- and that is no accident. There is a nuanced sexism in the attack on teachers unions. Teaching is a semi-profession that has long employed women, and has served as the entrance into the middle class for many people. Market reform takes that opportunity away, and transforms it into assembly-line work that will soon be performed by un-degreed, unqualified, and inexperienced people acquired through “talent pipelines”, and overseen by highly paid administrators. It’s an offense on working women, sabotaging both women and children.

As Dan Laitsch calls for in his article Smacked By the Invisible Hand (2013), teachers need to be aware of and actively opposing the neoliberal interests in public education that have been championed by entrepreneurs and Reaganist politicians, mobilized by anti-Union “heroes” villainizing teachers (*ahem* Michelle Rhee, Waiting for Superman). The invisible hand isn’t a byproduct of human nature leading us to market equilibrium: it’s the hands we don’t see puppeteering entities to move public money from public education into private business.

The big fight is up to the people who do this work, who protect the profession, who occupy our schools. We have more to fight for than the billion-dollar interest market reformers see in public schools. We have to be wary, and we have to be vigilant, we have to vocal, and we have to be in the right conversations.

The invisible hands aren’t leading us to autonomy and innovation: they’re leading us to the auction block.

 

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